Wednesday, January 03, 2007

How truly open is Flash? Do we need "Open Flash"?

This is a post made by David Mendels that inspired me to get this message out. I too have noticed that a few people Still perceive Flash as a proprietary technology. If you are one of those, read this then ask yourself the two questions at the end. I had a completely different view of Flash before Adobe and Macromedia merged.

David writes:

(Some basic points)
  1. The Flash programming language (ActionScript) is 100% ECMASCript, a standard with multiple implementations and is open. You can script using ActionScript with a plain old text editor.
  2. The internal Flash Player VM, “Tamarin” is an open source project run by the Mozilla foundation (donated by Adobe).
  3. The Flash file format, *.SWF is a published format.
  4. The Adobe Flash Player (the reference implementation) is free. So are several others like the Gnash player.
  5. The Flash Player is available on Mac, Windows, Linux, Playstation, Nintendo Wii, Symbion, and many other platforms.
  6. An SDK for building, compiling, debugging Flash applications is available for free on Mac, Windows and Linux
  7. There are over 100 third party, free, commercial, open source and closed source products that produce, edit, generate, and otherwise manipilate Flash files, Flash Video files, etc.
  8. There is a very active Open Source community around the Flash runtime. For better or worse (I do work for Adobe -;) many many people take full advantage of the Flash Player without using any commercial products from Adobe (or anyone belse). See to get a good view of this.
  9. Flash itself makes use of several standards such as JPG, AVI, GIF and PNG's as outlined here.

There are numerous web based services (You Tube, BrightCove, etc) that convert to, host, deliver Flash Video without requiring the purchase or use of any commercial or proprietary technology.

Now, all that said, the Flash Player as a whole is not open source. There are a number of reasons for this, at least as of today. 2 primary reasons come to mind right now, but these are not immutable:

i. The desire to avoid bifurcation. Right now one can produce a SWF from any one of many tools/servers/services from many vendors and be 100% confident it will run across platform and across browsers. We experienced the impact of multiple slightly (or largely) incompatible implementations of HTML/JS browsers and of JVMs and both had a major impact to slow innovation and usage. One of the things our customers (developers/desginers/publishers) have told is us not to screw up the compatibility and ubiquity that have been the hallmark of Flash since day 1.
ii. There are technologies in the Flash Player for which we do not own the IP or the rights to open source it, for example, we have licensed our MP3 codec.

There is one more area where we are arguably not “open”. This relates to our licensing strategy on non-PC devices (eg Cell Phones). On these devices, we do license the Flash Player for a royalty to device manufacturers and telco operators. It is still free from an end-user and developer perspective, but there are a lot of costs associated with these integrations.


My experience is that when people say they want “open”, there are usually 3 or 4 things they really want or need:

* No lock in. They don’t want adopt a technology that they may get “blackmailed” to pay money for in the future. I think we have addressed this fairly well by making the Flash Player and SDK free.

* Integration. They want the technology stack they work with to work with the rest of their stack and tool chain. This requires appropriate use of standards (eg. we support XML over HTTP, Web Services, ECMAScript, CSS, integration with multiple IDE and Source Code management systems, etc) and well crafted and well documented APIs. I think we have this area covered too, but I’d like to hear about concerns.

* Leverage existing skills. By using standards, one does not get locked into skills that can not be found generally in the market and that will be obsolete in the near term. This is why we standardized on ECMAScript. This is why we have an Eclipse based tool. This is why we enable development with a purely ASCII text format to fit into other systems. This is why we leveraged CSS in the Flex framework, etc. I think we have this covered too, but I’d love to hear your thoughts.

* Ability to fix bugs/issues without depending on a vendor. From a tool chain perspective, one can choose to work in an entirely open source toolchain for the creation of SWFs, so this is covered. From the runtime perspective, this is arguably a barrier. That said, I don’t hear a lot of folks who have actual concerns about our “stewardship” of the Flash Player in this regard. I’d love to have your perspecitve.

Questions for the public:

* What does “Open Flash” actually mean to you? Have we done a good job of balancing the interests of implementers and developers without hindering innovation?

* What specific problem(s) does “Open Flash” solve that are not addressed by our current “openness”